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Canada is denying travel visas to AI researchers headed to NeurIPS — again

Canadian immigration officials are denying travel visas to a large number of AI researchers and research students scheduled to attend NeurIPS and the Black in AI workshop, event organizers said. Those denied entry include Tẹjúmádé Àfọ̀njá, co-organizer of the NeurIPS Machine Learning for the Developing World workshop.

Neural Information Processing Systems or NeurIPs is the largest annual international AI conference in the world, according to the AI Index 2018 report. The conference is scheduled to be held December 8-14 in Vancouver, Canada.

On Tuesday, Black in AI cofounder and Google AI researcher Timnit Gebru said 15 of 44 attendees planning to join its December 9 workshop were denied entry. Many cited immigration officials’ fears that they would not return home.

This is the second year the conference will be held in Canada. Last year, nearly half of Black in AI workshop attendees were also denied entry to Canada, Gebru said. As is reported by attendees year, Canadian immigration officials in 2018 cited concerns that attendees wouldn’t leave the country when the conference was over.

In response to the visa situation, last year organizers of the International Conference on Learning Representations (ICLR), including well-known Canadian researcher Yoshua Bengio, moved  ICLR 2020 to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

No Canadian government has been as proactive about fighting discrimination and promoting inclusivity, Bengio said, something he said he’s seen in his work as a professor. He hopes the latest issue researchers headed to NeurIPS is the result of embassies outside Canada taking a long time to integrate a message from government in Ottawa.

“If the immigration services don’t change their ways, it is clear that it will deter international conference organizers from organizing their events in Canada. It would also hurt the image of Canada, which this government has put forward as a place welcoming to immigrants and with the fight against discrimination and bias high in its priorities,” Bengio told VentureBeat in an email.

In an MIT Tech Review interview about a year ago, Bengio called travel restrictions placed on African AI researchers traveling to AI conferences — which are frequently held in the U.S. and Europe — unfair and a serious problem.

A Canadian immigration spokesperson declined to respond to questions about individual travel visa applications but said NeurIPS organizers have been in touch since May and supplied a list of conference attendees October 21 and November 2. Officials noted a broad range of factors are considered when an individual applies for a travel visa, such as travel documents, the financial means of an individual or their family, and the economic state of a person’s home country.

VentureBeat reached out to a NeurIPS organizing committee spokesperson for more information on whether other researchers planning to the attend the NeurIPS conference or affiliated workshops are experiencing similar denials but did not receive a response before this story was published.

Citing the experience of AI researchers attempting to travel to major AI conferences, the Partnership on AI — a conglomerate of major AI companies and humanitarian organizations — in September called for nations to create special travel visas for AI researchers, like the kinds some countries have created for doctors or entrepreneurs.

Interviews and analysis that accompanied the call for a change in visa policy found AI researchers from Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe have reported challenges obtaining travel visas to attend AI conferences, and found that denial of a visa can rob both the person declined entry and the wider AI research community who convene at conferences to share insights, collaborate with colleagues, and review the latest state-of-the-art or novel AI systems.

“As noted in our visa policy paper, today’s visa application systems constrain the diversity of ideas needed for scientific progress and responsible AI. Governments should consider practices which accelerate reviews of visa applications, create AI visa classifications, train officials in the language of emerging technologies, and empower officials to assist applicants in resolving discrepancies that may otherwise lead to a denial or delay in approval,” Partnership on AI director of policy Lisa Dyer said in a statement provided to VentureBeat.

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